Friday, July 31, 2009
In 1968, students protested in France over what were some archaic rules that called for strict separation between the sexes in the universities. Through a complicated chain of events, this led to the involvement of the revolutionary film directors and actors of the French New Wave after the closing of the Cinémathèque Française, and the ousting of its founder, Henri Langlois. Many have traced the beginnings of the liberated French culture of today to the days of the protests when the anarchic students of France, emulating the revolutionary nature of their distant brothers in America, took a stand against the antiquated mores of the previous generation's society. Eventually after several months of confrontations between the students and the police, it all culminated in a general strike that lasted for weeks in May, involved over 10 million workers despite no authorization being given by any labor unions, and ended changing French society forever. Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers sets its story against the tumultuous backdrop of those events. It focuses on the near-incestuous relationship between French twins Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green), as seen through the eyes of American student, Matthew (Michael Pitt). When the twins' parents go on an extended holiday, leaving them alone in their apartment, Michael soon gets lured into a perverse triangle with the immature siblings, enabling their transgressive sexual desires through him, if not necessarily through each other. Bertolucci uses the relationship to parallel France's violent rebellions, implying that American culture was the inspiration behind the country's social upheaval. We first see, Isabelle and Theo's fascination with Matthew, a strong silent type they are unaccustomed too in their native land. This is a reflection of their idolization of American cinema and its directors (Bertolucci directly quotes films as diverse as Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor and Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It, among others). Once Matthew is drawn in by the two, the three bond over their different takes on American culture, debating the virtues of Chaplin vs. Keaton, Clapton vs. Hendrix. Theo's revolutionary spirit is lit by the gritty gangster films and rock-and-roll music slowly making its way overseas from the U.S. Isabelle, representative of the beauty and culture France has been so protective of for so many years, is a tad more resistant to follow her brother down the path of protest he seems intent on travelling. Finally, it is Michael who gives Theo the initiative to act and join the protesters outside the apartment where they've been conducting their taboo affair, by criticizing Theo's constant intellectual regurgitation of Maoist doctrine. He points out that Theo, and in fact, the French, only seem to approach revolution from a cerebral standpoint instead of engaging it viscerally. Unfortunately, Matthew, who so perceptively diagnosed Isabelle and Theo's dysfunctional infantilism in regard to their strange relationship, is unable to consummate the spark he lit within Theo, refusing to join him once the protests escalate into violence. It is this that points to Bertolucci's notion that Americans, so shining an example in its pursuit of change with its own protests during the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, women's liberation, etc., ultimately gave up too easily. Watergate, the consumption era of the eighties, the refusal to let go of antiquated dependence on foreign oil, all can arguably be said to stem from our inability to stand up to the establishment the way the French did. Thus, it is the French who continued on to a new age of idealism, while leaving us behind. This post was first published at Film for the Soul for its continuing series on the best movies of the 2000s, Counting Down the Zeroes, on 7/19/09.